Saturday / April 13

4 Simple Rules for a Pedagogy of Student Voice 

pedagogy of compliance continues to dominate the majority of American classrooms, particularly at a secondary level, characterized by lecture-style instruction, students in rows looking toward the teacher as knowledge expert, and teachers carrying the cognitive load. This model minimizes instructional conversation between teacher and student and among students. According to a Gallup poll, only 53 percent of our nation’s students report they are engaged in their formal learning, as measured by three factors: enthusiasm for school, whether they feel well known, and how often they get to do what they do best. Latinx and African American teens are especially disconnected (Gallup, 2014; Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2012). Compliance-driven pedagogy leads to student disengagement. 

What if shedding the pedagogy of compliance and embracing a pedagogy of voice were easier than it appears? A few simple rules guide a pedagogy of voice that will release you from the shackles of compliance and allow you to dream to life the classrooms you seek. 

Simple Rule 1: Talk Less, Smile More 

In Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, politician Aaron Burr is mentoring the young Hamilton, in a bar no less. His main piece of advice is to talk less, smile more, and not let people know what his beliefs and views are. If I could write the perfect lyric to capture the pedagogy of voice, this would be it! If you can change one thing tomorrow—whether you’re a classroom teacher, teacher leader, coach, or administrator—try to talk less, smile more, and design lessons and professional learning that allow learners to discover what they think and feel. Why does this matter? As long as we do the talking and make knowledge deposits into the learner’s brain, we are carrying the cognitive load. We are doing the thinking. We retain power and inhibit the growth of agency. Shift the thinking and cognitive load to the learner by designing curriculum (and adult learning) around probing, reflective questions with ample time for discussion. 

What about the “smile more” part of Aaron Burr’s advice, you might be wondering? Here, we turn to the power of nonverbal communication to foster or shatter a child’s experience of belonging. When we smile and use tone and other nonverbal cues to convey warmth, we signal to students that they are safe, welcome, and able to take risks. For students who have been personally and educationally marginalized, this is crucial. Think about a classroom in which students have experienced trauma, including microaggressions by peers and/or teachers. The teacher’s emotional tenor will be at least as important as the content they share. Talking less and smiling more helps us communicate to every child, “You are seen and loved here.” 

Simple Rule 2: Questions Over Answers 

Children are naturally inquisitive. A recent study led by British child psychologist Dr. Sam Wass found that children ask an average of seventy-three questions per day (Steingold, 2017)! Good questions are important, interesting, and don’t have a clear answer. Unfortunately, far too many students are still required to sit quietly and absorb information from their teachers or worse, those children who dare to ask questions are pathologized as “disruptive” and “off-task.” This is especially true for many Black students whose brilliance and curiosity is filtered through a lens of racism and bias. 

In order to shift the cognitive load, we have to create a culture of inquiry in our classrooms and professional-learning spaces. This means that we begin to prioritize questions over answers. I think about questions through the lens of fractals—those never-ending patterns that replicate across different scales. When you embrace a pedagogy of voice, you commit to investing your energy in developing sharp, intriguing, rich questions at every level of the learning experience. Table 1 outlines different ways to think about this. 

Table 1: Questions as a Fractal Pedagogy 

Unit of Inquiry  Example(s) 
Students pose their own questions.  ·  Journaling: What questions are coming up for you as we begin this unit study? 

·  KWL: Jot down what you k(now) and w(ant) to know about our new area of study. At the end, we will write down what we l(earned). 

Students ask each other questions.  ·  Small group or fishbowl discussions, centered around students’ questions (have them jot down questions on sticky notes first and take turns posing them). 

·  Give one, get one: Have students develop questions, then stand, pair-share, and trade. Encourage them to find answers on their own or by engaging with peers. 

Teacher structures an assessment, task, project, or unit around an essential question.  ·  Initiate a unit around an essential question that students revisit each week and do a final assessment around. 

·  Organize project-based learning or performance-based assessments around provocative open-ended questions. 

Simple Rule 3: Ritualize Reflection and Revision 

Centering student voice doesn’t mean we stop giving feedback, but it does mean we shift our role from expert lecturer to expert coach, charged with the cognitive apprenticeship of students. Reflection and revision are two of our strongest tools in this regard and help students at the margins accelerate their skills over time, and they can take place daily, weekly, and throughout a unit of instruction. 

Here are a few ways to operationalize this simple rule: 

  • Teach reflection and revision as explicit skills and processes. Consider this core content and model it in your instruction. Be vulnerable in sharing times when you have to revise a piece of work to make it better. Reflect publicly on instructional mistakes you make.
  • Begin a class period with time for students to reflect in writing and/or a turn and talk: What did you learn yesterday that stuck with you? What’s a concept that still feels confusing?
  • Use the traffic light strategy for students to signal how well they understand the current content. Give each student a red, yellow, and green square of paper or mini-plastic cups. Have them put the color on top that indicates where they’re at: green for “I’m good,” yellow for “I sort of get it, but have some questions,” red for “I’m lost! SOS!”
  • End each week with a reflection protocol: What did I learn this week? What’s one thing I feel proud about? What’s one thing I’m still struggling with? Have them share their responses in small, ongoing peer groups and close with each student giving the peer to their left or right an appreciation. 
  • Provide students with graphic organizers and structured protocols for giving each other feedback on their work. Teach them to sandwich feedback! “What I loved about this piece of work was . . . One question I had was . . . One suggestion I have is . . . “
  • Whenever possible, make time for one-on-one conferencing with students around their work. Conferences can provide the most impactful learning moments.

Simple Rule 4: Make Learning Public 

One of the quickest ways to embrace a pedagogy of voice is to put students in the driver’s seat by having them design and teach lessons. To cultivate agency, we have to stop being the only audience for student work. We must create authentic ways for students (and adult learners) to share the knowledge they are building. Student work is the yin to the yang of student voice. Public learning is most impactful when situated in a holistic performance assessment system that is based on common, school-wide standards and integrated into daily instructional decisions. Such a system shows students what they need to do by providing models, demonstrations, simulations, and exhibitions of the kind of high-quality academic work they need to produce. 

Here are a few features of public learning that you can begin to experiment with in your classroom, grade-level team, department, school, or district: 

  • Portfolios of student work that showcase in-depth study via research papers, original science experiments, literary analyses, artistic performances or exhibitions, mathematical models, and more
  • Rubrics that represent explicit, shared standards against which to assess student work and performance
  • Oral defenses by students to a committee of teachers, peers, and potentially community members that allow educators to listen for in-depth understanding
  • Multiple opportunities for students to revise their work, redeem their academic status, and grow their skills in order to demonstrate learning (Adapted from Darling-Hammond, 2002, p. 16)

These simple rules cut across micro- and macro-pedagogies, from small moves at the interpersonal level to big moves in curriculum and assessment design. Put together, they will help you shape a pedagogy of voice that generates rich street data and cultivates the most important measure of all, student agency. 

Note: This blog is excerpted from Chapter 5 of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Corwin, 2021). The chapter outlines six simple rules and provides more examples. 


Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2012, December 3). Youth unemployment soars in past decade. [Web log post] 

Darling-Hammond, L. (2002). “10 Features of Good Small Schools,” Redesigning High Schools: What Matters and What Works. School Redesign Network. 

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. 

Gallup. (2014, December 11). Gallup student poll 2014 U.S. overall report. [Poll] 

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of teacher education, 53(2), 106-116. 

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 

Written by

Shane Safir was the founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE), an innovative national model identified by scholar and policy leader Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.” She writes for Edutopia, Ed Week, Educational Leadership magazine and is the author of The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass: 2017) and co-author of Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation 

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